Victims with disabilities
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Research has shown that women with disabilities and Deaf women experience violence at extremely high rates, and in a different ways from their peers without disabilities. It has also shown that women with disabilities and Deaf women have limited access to vital safety and support services offered by social service organizations and the criminal justice system. This section of our site is an overview of how victims with disabilities are impacted by domestic and sexual violence. For more information see the links and resources at the bottom of this page.
Although the research on violence against women with disabilities and Deaf women is limited, the information available suggests that women with disabilities and their peers without disabilities face similar risk in experiencing violence. (This means that women with disabilities and Deaf women are just as likely to experience violence as women without disabilities.) However, this research also shows that for women with disabilities and Deaf women, the abuse is different. For example, it is often more severe, goes on for longer periods of time, and occurs at the hand of a larger number of perpetrators. Research has shown that some women with disabilities are at an increased risk for experiencing this violence in additional settings as well, including group homes, hospitals and institutions. Women with disabilities and Deaf women have reported limited access to safety and support services available in their communities.
- One study found that women with and without physical disabilities were equally likely (62%) to experience physical or emotional abuse from intimate partners. However, for women with disabilities, the abuse tended to last longer.
(Young, et al., 1997)
- Of psychiatric inpatients, 80% have experienced physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime.
(Jacobson, Andrea and Bonnie Richardson. “Assault Experiences of 100 Psychiatric Inpatients: Evidence for the Need for Routine Inquiry.” American Journal of Psychiatry 144, 7 (1987): 908.)
*This content was adapted from the Accessing Safety Initiative website.
More research on sexual assault and women with disabilities and Deaf women is needed. However, some research suggests that women with specific disabilities experience higher risk than women with other disabilities or women without disabilities. Intellectual disabilities, communication disorders, and behavioral disorders appear to be associated with very high levels of risk. For example, one study found that women with developmental disabilities are four to ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women without a developmental disability. Moreover, women with developmental disabilities are more likely to experience repeated victimization.
Additionally, perpetrators are most often known to the victim/survivor. One research study found that 97-99% of abusers are known and trusted by the victim/ survivor who has an intellectual disability. 32% of those abusers are family and 44% are people who specifically have a relationship with the person because of their disability—they are caregivers, drivers or residential care staff.
Possible Explanations for Increased Risk
Perpetrators of sexual assault may target women with disabilities for many reasons. Some perpetrators may perceive that women with disabilities and Deaf women tend to be socially or physically isolated and can be easily manipulated into trusting someone. Others might exploit the fact that oftentimes these victims/ survivors tend to not report such experiences to others. And, while many of these perceptions are based in stereotypes about people with disabilities in general, they can affect the safety of some women.
It is also important to note that women with disabilities are not often believed when they report a sexual assault. This can most definitely also be a reason for increased risk, as perpetrators will believe they will not be caught or prosecuted.
- The risk of being physically or sexually assaulted for adults with developmental disabilities is likely 4 to 10 times as high as it is for other adults.
-Sobsey, D. (1994). Violence and abuse in the lives of people with disabilities: The end of silent acceptance? Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
- In one study, the rate of repeat sexual abuse among women with developmental disabilities was found to be at more than 70%.
-Sobsey, D. and T. Doe. 1991. "Patterns of Sexual Abuse and Assault," Journal of Sexuality and Disability, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 243-59.
- Research suggests that 97% to 99% of abusers are known and trusted by the victim/survivor who has an intellectual disability. Of those, 32% were family members or acquaintances and 44% had a relationship with the victim/survivor specifically related to the person’s disability (such as a residential care staff, transportation provider or personal care attendant).
-Baladerian, N. Sexual Abuse of People with Developmental Disabilities. Sexuality and Disability, 9 (4), 323-335. 1991.
- For individuals with psychiatric disabilities, the rate of violent criminal victimization including sexual assault was 2 times greater than in the general population (8.2% vs. 3.1%).
-Hidday, V.A., M. Swartz, J. Swanson, R. Borum, and H.R. Wagner. Criminal Victimization of Persons with Severe Mental Illness. Psychiatric Services 50 (1999): 62-68.
This content was adapted from the Accessing Safety Initiative website.
- Red flags for an abusive or potentially abusive caregiver
- Safety of Your Child With a Disability
- Tips for Communicating with Survivors with Cognitive Disabilities
- Tips on what to do when an individual with a disability discloses abuse
- Tips for Parents: Talking to Your Child with a Disability about Sexuality
- Tips for Working with Sexual Abuse Survivors Who Have Disabilities
- New Hampshire Agencies: Click here for a list of agencies assisting people with disabilities in NH.
- Safety Planning for Domestic Violence Victims with Disabilities
This protocol comes from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. It contains recommended policies for domestic violence agencies to increase their safety planning services to people with disabilities and advance self-determination for people with disabilities by offering safety planning that is cognizant of environmental and social barriers.